james trevelyan  Professor James Trevelyan is a Winthrop Professor in the Mechanical and Chemical Engineering School at The University of Western Australia. His main area of research is on engineering practice, and he teaches design, sustainability, engineering practice and project management.

  He is well known internationally for pioneering research that resulted in sheep shearing robots (1975-1993). He and his students produced the first industrial robot that could be remotely operated via the internet in 1994. He was presented with the 1993 Engelberger Science and Technology Award in Tokyo in recognition of his work, and has twice been presented with the Japan Industrial Robot Association award for best papers at ISIR conferences. These are the leading international awards for robotics research. He has also received university, national and international awards for his teaching and papers on engineering education.

  From 1996 till 2002 he researched landmine clearance methods and his web site is an internationally respected reference point for information on landmines. He was awarded with honorary membership of the Society of Counter Ordnance Technology in 2002 for his efforts, and was also elected a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia.

  Professor Trevelyan's web page is: http://www.mech.uwa.edu.au/jpt/ and this has a large amount of supplementary information on his research and teaching.
















What first got you interested in engineering practice?

  This is briefly explained in chapter 10 of the book. By 2001, I had employed engineers in Pakistan for several years and found that their practical abilities did not seem to match expectations based on many years of employing engineers in Australia. These engineers were intelligent and well-qualified, and I was therefore curious to understand the reasons for this apparent weakness, especially when I found that similar difficulties with engineering practice seemed to be the norm in South Asia and other developing countries.

I applied qualitative research methods developed in earlier research on landmine clearance, collecting ethnographic field observations and conducting interviews in the expectation that I would be able to compare these results with extensive data collected on engineering practice in industrialised countries.

  With help from colleagues and students I searched hundreds of books, journals and conference proceedings. Gradually, it became apparent that there was hardly any systematically collected data on the details of engineering practice, anywhere, except for certain aspects of design and software engineering.

  This seemed to me to be a wonderful opportunity for research: an obvious question (What do engineers really do?) with few if any definitive answers. What surprised me was that the search for answers attracted a courageous cohort of (so far) 31 undergraduate and 9 postgraduate research students who have been prepared to take a leap into the unknown and start building a new and unconventional field of engineering research. My writing owes much to their efforts and willingness to engage in so many stimulating conversations, as well as support from colleagues and family.


Chapter 2: Towards a theoretical framework for engineering practice


Why did you begin researching the topic of your chapter? Was it chance/grand plan/ colleague's recommendation ...?

  As the draft chapter manuscripts for this book started to arrive, I realised that there was a need to establish some kind of coherent framework to demonstrate their relevance for other engineers and engineering educators. Most of the chapters have come from fields of social enquiry that few engineers would have encountered or have been interested in.

  I received encouraging responses to my first hastily written notes from other authors, particularly Dominique Vinck. I was also a participant at two workshops on philosophy of engineering and engineering education organised by John Heywood, Karl Smith and Russell Korte, held in conjunction with Frontiers in Engineering Education (FIE) conferences sponsored by IEEE and ASEE. These meetings provided wonderful opportunities to try out some of the ideas presented in this chapter, to see whether they would help address what seemed to be a gap in our understanding of engineering. I also have to thank young engineers in Perth consulting firms who struggled to answer simple questions I posed, like "What value does your work create?"


What challenges did you encounter when working on this chapter?

  Gradually, the chapter changed in form from being an introduction and framework for the other chapters into a separate argument on the reasons for the existence of engineering and its intellectual foundations. Writing itself is a journey: when you begin, you never quite know where you will end up. I was relieved when reviewers engaged seriously with the first complete draft and exposed some weaknesses, as well as some reluctance to move from long cherished and unchallenged notions of engineering.


What aspect of preparing your chapter gives you the most satisfaction now?

  Thanks to comments from reviewers and discussions with my own colleagues and students the final chapter, in my opinion, provides a much improved starting point to help define engineering practice as a field of knowledge in its own right. I hope that my fellow contributors find that it makes a small contribution to helping practising engineers see the relevance of their chapters.


Chapter 10: Observations of South Asian engineering practice


Why did you begin researching the topic of your chapter? Was it chance/grand plan/ colleague's recommendation ...?

  This was originally going to be my principal contribution to the book: I presented the material in outline at our Round Table meeting on Engineering Practice in Madrid in 2011.

  While South Asia provided the original motivation for my research on engineering practice, most of the later research has focused on Australia. It was much easier to obtain field observations and interviews, and as the gaps in the literature became more apparent, the need for this research assumed greater importance.

  Nevertheless, the prospect that we could significantly improve engineering practice in countries where it is so desperately needed has remained a critical long-term objective. This chapter builds on work by one of my graduate students, Vinay Domal. Data collected by other students, my personal ongoing experience working in South Asia (for a month or so each year), and research interviews that I have performed myself over the last few years have also provided extensive additional material and insights.

  This chapter is only an intermediate but necessary step, however. It explores some of the dimensions in which engineering practice differences mediate the end results. Other dimensions remain to be explored: a lot of material remains to be published.


What challenges did you encounter when working on this chapter?

  One of the reviewers, quite rightly, questioned the way in which my draft manuscript implicitly assumed that there could be a form of "pure" engineering practice in which social and cultural factors do not "interfere". In retrospect, I don't think that the final manuscript fully deals with this criticism. Therefore, I would ask readers not to let weaknesses in my writing and research perspective interfere with seeing the important issues that this research exposes.

  I would remind readers about the experience of so many people in South Asia who have to struggle every day just to get enough safe drinking water, even though they live in areas served by water supply networks. When we compare this with the ease, convenience and cheapness of mobile telecommunications in South Asia, I think there are important and valuable lessons to be learned. Engineering can work very effectively for people in low income countries, but not in the same way as it has worked for people in the industrialised world. We need to understand these differences better.


What aspect of preparing your chapter gives you the most satisfaction now?

  I think I have exposed the possibility that enduring poverty in many countries reflects underlying weaknesses in engineering practice, and that improvements in practice could significantly reduce poverty.

  In his book "The End of Poverty: How we can make it happen in our lifetime" Jeffrey Sachs listed 6 priority actions (Ch12, p234-5) to combat extreme poverty and help poor people get on the first rungs to escape extreme poverty.

1) Agricultural inputs (e.g. fertilizer, water harvesting, irrigation) and produce storage, including roads and transport for people and materials;

2) Investment in basic health: clinics, medicines;

3) Investment in education;

4) Power, transport and communication services;

5) Safe drinking water and sanitation (without which (2) is ineffective).

  All require effective engineering, either directly, or indirectly to provide productivity improvements that enable spare human capacity for education, healthcare and infrastructure investment.

  Our research has demonstrated that engineering in low income countries yields substantially less benefits, particularly in infrastructure and public services, than in industrialised countries. (For my TED talk on this, see www.tedxperth.com.)

  We have also demonstrated why the performance is lower. Effective engineering depends on extensive practice knowledge most of which is unwritten, and locked up in the minds of engineers in industrialised countries. This knowledge is barely even recognised in university engineering schools, partly because few if any engineering faculty have every practised ordinary everyday engineering. Since, at the moment, this knowledge cannot be easily disseminated, engineers low income countries do their best without it, but cannot achieve comparable results.

  While Sachs has called for investment to address poverty, he and others have tacitly assumed the equivalence of investments in, say, water supply, sanitation and power supply infrastructure. What our research has shown is that much more investment is needed in low income countries because the engineering is less effective. Corruption and incompetent governance is often blamed for this. However, our research has provided an alternative explanation, one that shows, for example, why safe drinking water supply systems (where they exist in South Asia) result in end-user costs per tonne of water which are many times higher than in Australia. And it's not just water: the real end user costs for electricity and other essential services critical for eradicating poverty are much more expensive for the people who can least afford them, as Sachs pointed out (though without this explanation: Ch 12, p230, "a real shocker, fertiliser for the poorest villagers cost twice the world market price.)

  This research is helping to reconstruct a substantial part of this missing engineering practice knowledge. The next step is to disseminate the knowledge in countries where extreme poverty still affects large proportions of the population.

  Engineering, in essence, helps to extend human capabilities with more economic use of materials, energy and human effort. Empowering engineers helps to lift human productivity in the whole community.

  This research originated in Pakistan a decade ago. Now it is time to apply the results in Pakistan and other low income countries.


What advice would you give to someone beginning to get interested in engineering practice(s) research?

  First, I think that this kind of research has huge potential for improving engineering practice, and helping young engineers especially to realise their dreams.

  For many starting their engineering careers, the realities of practice are so different to what they expect from their university studies, and the socio-technical factors are so difficult to understand, that they only last a few years before moving into other occupations. Many describe searching for the "ideal engineering job with sufficient technical challenge to motivate me" and many give up. A few persist and eventually realise that the sociotechnical aspects of engineering provide the real intellectual challenges they are seeking.

  This research can help them by providing them with the thinking and perception tools to recognise and engage with socio-technical aspects of engineering practice right from the start.

  Fortunately, many engineering faculties are beginning to encourage engineering education research by promoting scholarly engagement with learning and teaching issues in classrooms. Engineering practice research relies on similar research methods and these developments open opportunities for engineering academics to move beyond the world of objects and embrace new understandings of our world that have come from the human sciences.

  The big jump is to move outside the safe confines of the campus and start making field observations and conducting interviews with practising engineers. Many undergraduate students relish such a challenge, if only to satisfy their own curiosity about the world of practice that awaits them just around the corner. Practicing engineers are mostly very happy to tell their stories to keen young listeners. These stories provide the data on which sound research can be based.


0 # Carlos Tiago 2013-11-26 12:25
It is interesting that in my country, Portugal, there is also a notable lack of a defined concept of engineering practice – in my experience at least.
Is there any engineering school, applying the development of skills associated with the definition of engineering practice in their program?
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0 # James T 2013-12-09 22:47
An interesting question, Carlos.

As far as I’m aware, the notion that there is such a body of knowledge associated with “engineering practice” has not re-emerged anywhere to a great extent. I say “re-emerged” because the idea that engineers have to learn something in order to be able to practice has always been there, if not explicitly acknowledged except by the word “experience”. By calling for one or more years of “relevant experience” job advertisements acknowledge the need for learning about the way that engineering is actually practised in a relevant field. However, if you were to ask what is meant by the term “experience”, engineers would probably say something like “well, it’s the difference from theory: theory is what you learned in engineering school and experience is all the practical skills that you need to be an engineer.” If you were to then ask what is meant by practical skills, many engineers would have difficulty giving you a straight answer.

Recognising the need for a clearer understanding of what is meant by engineering practice, I am currently writing a book which will distil the results of our research with engineers over the last decade. In essence, the book will describe a body of knowledge and ways to learn it, knowledge that seems to be universal in its application to all engineering disciplines. The book will formalise the notion of “practical skills” and “experience” in a way which will allow young engineers to have a clearer idea of what they need to learn, and older engineers to have a clearer idea on how to pass on their learning.

I have promised to complete the chapters for the book by January and Taylor and Francis expect to publish it late next year. The provisional title is “How to Become an Expert Engineer.”

I am not aware of any engineering school that teaches engineering practice in its broadest sense. However, I have heard about postgraduate qualifications such as “engineering management” and “engineering project management” that provide certain aspects of engineering practice. I hope that my forthcoming book will make it much easier for these schools to provide a more complete coverage of engineering practice.

Best wishes

James T
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0 # Pedro Neto 2013-12-08 00:53
Dear Prof. James Trevelyan,
The authors of this book are from different fields of knowledge and some are not engineers (I’m not suggesting that it is necessary to be). What was the criterion used to gather such fields of knowledge to present paths related to engineering practice?
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+1 # James T 2013-12-09 22:33
Dear Pedro
It would be wonderful if we had so many potential contributors that it would be necessary to apply some kind of formal criterion for selection. The reality is that there are very few researchers who have asked the question “What do engineers really do?”
A much larger number of researchers have focused on certain cognitive processes that engineers engage in such as design thinking or programming. Others have focused on specific job functions of engineers such as project management. Still more have focused on certain aspects of the interactions between engineers, such as the way that they work in teams or workgroups. Usually this kind of research has been directed at generalisable results that give us conclusions that apply to a broader range of people than just engineers. A more specific field of enquiry has been engineering education. However even in this field it is rare to find researchers who have observed engineers at work to gather results that could be applied to help engineering students in their classrooms.
I think you would find that each of the authors who contributed to this book has been surprised at some stage to find out just how few researchers have observed what actually happens with engineers in their workplaces, to observe not only the social interactions between them but also the ways that technical issues shape these interactions and are in turn shaped by them.
Best wishes
James T
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